We spoke to Demetri Walters, a Master of Wine (MW) and the Sales Manager at the illustrious and delicious wine and spirits merchant, Berry Bros and Rudd.
I (Jack) met him at one of BBR’s wine tastings (held in their quite exciting and historic wine cellars) and found that he was (as you’d expect really) impossibly knowledgable about all things fermented grape related (OK, not all things – he’s probably not a vinegar expert – though I may be wrong). He also had strong opinions and we like strong opinions here.
Part of what we do at Tasting Britain is try and level the playing field on food and drink. ‘Cos everybody loves food and drink (or should, anyway). BBR, with their Royal Warrant, may seem a bit out of reach to the regular wine/spirit drinker – but I’ve found very often that when you speak to people in these kind of places, they’re keen to share what they know. No elitism here, just passion, they sell wines ranging from around £6.95 to many hundreds of pounds.
Anyway, I put some questions to the man himself on everybody’s favourite alcoholic drink (and by everybody I mean me, specifically – lol).
After I’d imagine bracing himself against the sheer volume of my email, here’s what he had to say….
Full Name: Demetri Walters
Twitter: I think not!
Website: …err, sadly not
Fun Fact: I’m called Janice at the weekends…not really. I’m very serious…nothing fun about me whatsoever.
J: How did your wine journey begin? I read that you were a head-hunter and a rancher in previous lives? What brought you to where you are today? In terms of the wine industry, it’s hard to go further than BBR…
D: My grandfather owned a lot of vineyards, albeit producing basic village wine, in Cyprus. I always felt a romantic attachment to wine and the production of wine. I was a head-hunter with a near permanent stomach ache from anxiety. Wine was my interest and, to cut a long story short, I made the leap!
As I understand it, the wines of Greece are your particular specialty? In my experience, Greek wine is not so popular in the UK (I could be wrong?). So, if people want to get into Greek wine, where do you reckon they start?
I wouldn’t say that the wines of Greece are my particular speciality. I am interested in all high quality, authentic (that’s the important bit) wine. Authentic to me means a wine with a story and a palpable sense of place. I have Hellenic ancestry, my mother being from Cyprus, and I feel an attachment to the wines (and everything else!) Of the Hellenic world.
Of all the wines in the wide, wide world – which are your 3 most and least favourites? (do you even have least favourites?)
I really don’t have favourite wines. Least favourite…anodyne, dull wine. But very cheap wine needs to be consistent, made to a (low) price, and is therefore invariably unexciting. Nothing wrong with it, i just don’t choose to drink it. I’ve had some pretty rough wines in my time, but even these can have a story when you associate them with say, a beach restaurant, friends…etc.
What was the best wine related experience you ever had?
I recently received my Master of Wine (MW) and that felt pretty good!
I am lucky enough to work for an old family business and to taste astonishingly good wines from a bygone age. Where else could one experience a horizontal of 1870 clarets? I enjoy mature Madeira very much and am a member of the Madeira club. We taste 8-10 wines invariably 50 – 200 years old before we lunch together. At another recent Madeira tasting I was staggered by the complexity of a Bual from 1780.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into life at Berry Bros & Rudd and the world of a Master Of Wine? How do you guys decide which specific wines you’ll stock and suppliers you’ll work with?
We want to the merchant of choice for those wine enthusiasts who seek the highest quality, most authentic wines from around the world. Our responsibilities vary according to the scope of our roles. So, aside from heading up our private wine events team (that entails being part of a team that organises and runs tutored wine tasting and wine orientated events, that gives wine advice and teaches about wine), I have recently been tasked with creating (alongside my Cretan colleague Eva Polaki) and promoting a Hellenic range. We’re very proud of the outcome.
What’s it take to become a Master Of Wine? It sounds like a pretty exciting experience but I’m sure the amount of examination involved was quite something….
It took five years of hard work, a series of practical (blind wine tasting) exams, a number of theory exams and a thesis. It is self taught and the pass rate is very low. Most people who ultimately don’t pass fail to make the grade because of time commitments, lack of funds and because they give up on it. You have to keep at it.
What are some of the most fascinating and historical things lurking in those historical cellars under your storefront? In my brief time down there I saw some very dusty and very grand looking bottles, of all shapes and sizes…
We house the Berry and Rudd family reserves (not for sale but for us to drink with each other and our clients) of wines from 1834 to the present day. The client ledgers have been faithfully recording our customers’ weights, heights and excuses since 1765. The history here is the usual London weave of all things ancient, all given meaning by a family, and its close associates, who have been operating their business here since 1698.
What advice would you give to aspiring wine industry professionals who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Do your own thing! We’re all different and tread different paths. Find out what really excites you and pursue it within an environment that makes you happy.
And, where next for you and BBR?
Through my objectivity, experience and wine authority, to help us all here propel this business as a wine merchant with which our clients want to do business with time and again. I want to promote wine not just as a commodity or product, but as a means of pursuing the art of good living.
Now I’d like to ask a few questions to help us demystify the world of wine…
Suppose someone wants to get more discerning in their wine consumption, and I guess derive more pleasure from the whole experience, how best to go about it?
I would strongly recommend that they attend our wine school in order to systematically improve their knowledge, further their enthusiasm for wine and to build their confidence.
We know that price doesn’t always equate to quality with wines, though there’s obviously going to be correlation. What do you reckon that the ‘non connoisseur’ needs to know, in a nutshell, about buying wine for themselves? And – in terms of wine buying, what are some good signs and some bad signs?
In brief, engage your wine merchant in conversation. Tell them what you like but be open to what they suggest. We’re in the business of evangelising our clients, opening them up to new wine experiences. It helps them and helps us.
What’s the correct way to taste a wine? How is best to properly develop your palette as a wine drinker – how did you do it, for example?
This is best explained in detail and not via this medium. There’s a systematic approach to wine tasting involving observation, nosing and tasting. It’s complex but readily understood when broken down. I developed my palate through education and lots of tasting.
Is it the done thing for the consumer to deal directly with the winery? Is it something you’ve done or would recommend?
It depends on the winery. Some wineries don’t encourage it as they’re too small/busy to receive guests except those in the trade. Some wineries offer cellar door sales and have good eateries set-up to encourage and welcome their clientele.
You’re involved in wine pairing, right? – How exactly do you match tastes to foods? You guys have a fantastic guide on the site, but who sets the standard and decides what works with what? Surely there’s a lot of subjectivity in it…
There’s an objective frame work. Ultimately though it boils down to matching the cuisine you know with the wines you know. Again, this is a complex question. I make food and wine matching recommendations all the time as I have an idea in my head how the dishes in question will taste and how the wine that i am recommending will taste and how they’ll complement each other. It’s down to experience.
Any lesser known kinds of wine that you think people need to know about (I’d never tried Commandaria until you showed us on the press day and I must say that I was mighty impressed!)
So many. My advice is to be open minded. We all know what we like but this develops (and even changes) as you become familiar with more and more wines.
Collecting and investment in wine are a time tested and time honoured practice. I know that Berry Bros offers this an option (I’ve been reading the Cellar Plan…). Could you give us a little outline around this – and are you involved in that to any capacity?
In short, buy wine to drink. However, some wines, particularly claret (red Bordeaux), top red Burgundy and a number of prestige Cuvee champagnes and top flight new world wines, are tradable. Wine is not an official investment vehicle but some wines can make a significant return in the medium – long term. The cellar plan is more about purchasing limited release wines at advantageous prices and enjoying them when they are mature and barely/no longer available on the market.
What does the great British public need to know about Berry Bros & Rudd? What one thing would you tell them, if you had a megaphone and the entire country’s ear?
That we are a reputable, authoritative wine merchant that would like to share our enthusiasm of all things wine with you.
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If humans made contact with (benevolent) aliens, and there was to be a no expenses spared diplomatic banquet in which said aliens got to try some of humanity’s finest drinks in a tasting (you are putting our best foot forward here!) – what would you pick, and in what order?
You never know, alcohol might be poison to them…
I’d select what i liked and hope that they’d be too polite to complain/nuke me and the rest of mankind.
If you could bring any mythological figure to come and work full time at BBR, who would you choose to work with, and why?
The god Dionysus. I’d let him loose on the cellars and see what happened…then I’d run for it.
If you had an infinite budget to arrange any kind of wine event you wanted, what would you do, who would you throw it for, where would you hold it, and what would it be like?
Whilst I like living it large, there’s nothing like enjoying good food and wine with family. Sounds hammy, but true.
Photography credits: Joakim Blockstrom